Sweden’s Surströmming: The ‘Try It If You Dare’ Delicacy

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Have you ever heard of surströmming? Sweden's canned fermented herring is a truly divisive food. Here's what you need to know about this Scandinavian curiosity.

Our tour of Scandinavia continues! This time we're not looking at things to do in a place, rather things to try. Or perhaps things to not try would be more accurate. Decide for yourself once you've read all about this uniquely Swedish craze.

An opened can of Swedish surströmming. Photo: Paul Barron / Shutterstock.com.
Swedish surströmming is fermented herring known for its pungent odour. Photo: Paul Barron / Shutterstock.com.

Sweden, the home of iconic dishes like Swedish meatballs and delectable crayfish parties, offers a range of culinary delights. However, one dish has managed to stay relatively hidden from the international culinary scene: surströmming.

What is surströmming?

The very thought of herring might draw mixed reactions, but surströmming takes it a notch higher. Considered by many as an acquired taste, this fermented herring dish challenges your senses, and is a leading contender for the world's smelliest food.

Surströmming is crafted using herring from the Baltic sea. The fish undergoes a fermentation process in a mild brine solution for over six months. To stop it from decaying, a light sprinkling of salt is added before sealing it in cans.

When it comes to consumption, the true connoisseurs relish it in small quantities wrapped in flatbread, garnished with waxy potatoes, sour cream, chives, red onion, and dill.

A trip to the Disgusting Food Museum

Located in Malmö, Sweden, the Disgusting Food Museum showcases surströmming as one of its main attractions. Museum director Andreas Ahrens remarks, “Upon opening a can, the overpowering scent is immediate and unmistakable.”

A gloved hand opening a can of surströmming. Photo: Seba Tataru / Shutterstock.com.
A can of surströmming is usually opened outside because of the smell. Photo: Seba Tataru / Shutterstock.com.

This characteristic odor stems from the gases produced during fermentation. Hence, it's customary to open these cans outdoors, making the process of opening the can an almost celebratory event.

Although surströmming is a focal point, the museum houses other unique dishes. From Peru's roasted guinea pigs, known as cuy, to Iceland’s aged shark dish, hákarl, and even the maggot-laden Sardinian cheese, casu marzu.

Surströmming, however, holds the record for causing around 50% of the reported cases of visitors feeling ill. As Ahrens notes, “Many try, but promptly spit it out, unable to bear the taste.”

Does it really smell that bad?

If you're in any doubt, look to a Japanese study from 2002 that found the smell of surströmming to be one of the world's most putrid odours.

It was considered a “stronger” odour than Korean Hongeo-hoe (fermented skate fish), Japanese nattō (soybeans fermented with intestinal bacteria) and several canned cheeses renowned for their putrid aromas.

An online sensation

The surströmming challenge, an online trend that began a few years ago, has recently picked up in popularity. In fact, the motivation for me penning this article was stumbling upon a video of two British guys trying the canned food just last week!

Cans of Swedish surströmming. Photo: Garijs Polskis / Shutterstock.com.
Cans of Swedish surströmming often bulge because of the fermentation. Photo: Garijs Polskis / Shutterstock.com.

Pioneered by The Swedish Surströmming Supplier, which ships these cans globally, the challenge continues to gain traction.

Their promotional videos, especially those featuring first-time foreign tasters juxtaposed with seasoned Swedes, are amassing millions of views.

Despite the initial reactions, some participants confess to enjoying the dish once they overcome the initial sensory shock. Some, however, never get past the initial shock. Others still ignore the warnings to open the can outside, and soon come to regret it!

Why surströmming exists

You may be left wondering why this food even exists if so many people are repulsed by the smell. That's a fair question! Like many national delicacies such as Norway's famous lutefisk, its roots can be traced back to the years before refrigeration.

Historically, Swedes, like all Scandinavians, relied on preservation techniques like salting, drying, and canning to sustain them through the harsh winters.

Yet, surströmming is today predominantly enjoyed in August. This tradition, as Ahrens notes, traces back to an old decree prohibiting the sale of surströmming before the third Thursday of August.

Can of Swedish fermented herring with a bottle of schnapps. Photo: Paul Barron / Shutterstock.com.
A bottle of schnapps is usually close by a can of surströmming. Photo: Paul Barron / Shutterstock.com.

Even though the decree no longer exists, the date marks the unofficial start of ‘surströmming season', with parties celebrating it extending into September. However, such celebrations are largely confined to northern Sweden.

A surströmming party

For those fortunate (or unfortunate!) enough to attend a surströmmingsskiva, or surströmming party, be prepared! Participants will often form their sandwiches with flatbread, or salads including potatoes and crème fraiche, meaning you'll have to get close to get involved.

Expect strong alcoholic accompaniments. As Ahrens highlights, “to counterbalance the intense flavour, it's often paired with spirits like aquavit, bitters, or vodka.”

Whether you're adventurous enough to try it or simply curious, it's a dish that promises a memorable experience. If that memory will be a positive or negative one, I couldn't possibly say!

Have you tried surströmming on a visit to Sweden, or somewhere else? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments, below.

About David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a professional writer on all things Scandinavia.

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1 thought on “Sweden’s Surströmming: The ‘Try It If You Dare’ Delicacy”

  1. Hey there David,
    Yes, I have tried surstrømming and at first, I did not like it but being a true Norse woman I came back for more. This time I also had a glass of Aquavit along with my sandwich bite and liked `it` better! I have to agree though, it is a taste one have to `grow up` with. It`s like gamal ost in Norway, this is also a `special` taste some don`t like.
    OK then, I`ve had my say!


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